Marvellaland

Essays on memoir, music, and more from Beatrice M. Hogg

Archive for the category “Unemployment”

It’s All Temporary

            Just last Friday, as I was walking to work, I thought about how lucky I was to have a job. Here it was, Friday the 13th and a full moon, but I had a job and today was payday. I had a full time temp job that was supposed to last for six months. I had been working for six weeks and was feeling pretty good. Soon, it would be summer and for the first time in years, I could actually participate in the summer concert scene. By October, I could save up and get a car, so I could start applying for case manager jobs – all of which required ownership of a personal vehicle. Or maybe I could get my old County job back. Finally, after eviction, homelessness, loss of most of my personal possessions, relying on the kindness of friends and relatives to survive, going on job interviews throughout the state, and making do, it looked like my life was finally turning around. I wasn’t crazy about this temp job with Sacramento County, but the delight of receiving a paycheck every week made everything look better. Things were picking up – I could see a future in my future.

But eight hours later, it was over. At 4:15 PM, my supervisor called me into the conference room. When I entered, the personnel supervisor who hired me was sitting at the table. Two weeks earlier, I had been transferred to a less busy office, as the supervisor thought I wasn’t picking up the job duties fast enough, even though I had no prior experience in the field or with the codes and procedures that I needed to remember. The pace was slower in my new office, but I was told that work would be picking up shortly, as they would be providing a new service. Since I didn’t pick up things fast enough at the old location, it was automatically assumed that I wouldn’t be able to pick things up quickly at the new location either. I was told that I wasn’t doing all that I should be doing, even though the person that was supposed to train me seemed reluctant to train me on what he did all day. Even though they were sure that I was smart, I was just not working out. It seemed like I was fired not because of my current actions, but because of what I might not do in the future.

I was flabbergasted. I had been given no indication that my supervisor was unhappy with my performance. As a former Mensa member, I was insulted by their patronizing attitudes and their “assumption” that I was smart. I was told that I would be paid for the forty-five minutes left in the workday, but I could leave now. In spite of my anger, I started to cry. When I went to my workstation to collect my backpack, my co-worker did not seem surprised that I was leaving, making me wonder about his collusion in my dismissal.

In less than ten minutes, I was out on the street. Once again, my dream was over. I had to consider that “too slow” was the new way of saying “too old.” My first full time job in five years was now a memory. Instead of working six months, I had barely managed six weeks. It was a bright, sunny afternoon, but all I could see were the clouds in my now-uncertain future. After thirty years of responsible hard work, I was useless, not even good enough for a temporary receptionist position. I felt like just giving up. Who was going to hire an over-fifty African American woman with a MFA in creative writing and a BA in social work with no car who lived in a room in the house of some benevolent white people, with nothing to call her own but some clothes, books, and CDs? This is why people commit suicide, I thought, why people take potshots at commuters from overhead bridges.

It was a different work world these days. Forget about someone telling you how to improve on the job. Forget about taking the time to learn your job. You are expendable, just one of many job seekers out there. Next! No wonder I can’t get a job with any county in California. Temp jobs are the wave of the future. Counties don’t have to pay any expenses like benefits or provide any employee perks – they just call up a temp agency for a warm, and preferably young, body. I feel like my life is over – no chance of getting a job I love helping people, rising up the ranks to oversee and pass on my knowledge to others, and then retiring at a ripe old age, feeling that I had done my part to help others realize their dreams. Will I end up on the streets again? Will I develop some debilitating disease after a lifetime of perfect health and become a burden on strangers because I have no family?

These days, it seems that everything is temporary – except for the chance that I will become self-sufficient again. That appears to be gone forever.

Lessons Learned

BMH At UniversalMaybe these five tips will help you or someone you know. Or maybe not. This is not a hippie-dippie-New-Agey feel good list about how to find yourself. I hate that shit. But if crystals, tapping, tarot cards, focused mediation or whatever works for you, go for it. This is what works for me.

  1. Have friends who are going through similar struggles. In my life, I have Mary, Lorraine, Teresa, Dorothy and Deb. Without them, I probably would have killed myself or someone else a long time ago. Believe me, people who have not been unemployed during this economic downturn DO NOT understand what you are going through. And long-term unemployed people over-fifty have special issues these days that younger people do not have to deal with. The combination of less jobs, jobs that don’t pay a living wage, employer reluctance to hire older, long-term unemployed persons, the requirement of specialized skills instead of general knowledge and many other factors make this recession vastly different from the ones that have occurred previously. If you don’t have any friends you can commiserate with, talk to people at your nearest job search center, connect with people online, even if you have just leave comments on websites like the National Employment Law Project (www.nelp.org) and Over Fifty and Out of Work (www.overfiftyandoutofwork.com). As long as you get confirmation that you are NOT alone. But if you feel that your mental health issues go beyond feelings of inadequacy or frustration because of your lack of employment, seek professional help. Call a Suicide Prevention Hotline if you feel that you might harm yourself. Many cities have mental health clinics or places set up for low income persons to get treatment. Don’t be afraid to ask to help.
  2. Treat Yourself. Sure, funds are limited and times are tough, but do something that makes you feel good. Even if it is just taking a walk, going to a free museum, a free event, or joining friends for a cup of coffee – you need to find some joy in your life. I wouldn’t recommend spending your last dollar in a thrift store or on the lottery, of course, but do what you need to do. Remember that every day that you wake up is a good day.
  3. Learn from your mistakes and don’t dwell on the past. Everyone who has been affected by the economic downturn would probably have done things differently if they had known what was on the horizon. But you can’t beat yourself up about it. You can’t change the past, but you can learn from it. I never in a million years thought that I would end up homeless, but it has given me insights that I would never had gotten any other way. Everything is a learning experience…blah, blah, blah. As Mary always says, “It is what it is.”
  4. Find your passion. Yeah, I know this sounds like more hippie-dippie bullshit, but it works for some people. There has to be something that you wanted to do or try that you never had the time for or the balls to do before. Look into things that interest you. Go to a lecture on the subject, take some community college or community center classes, hang out at places where people do what you want to do. Maybe once you see it from the inside, you will discover that it isn’t for you. But a lot of times, you have to step out of your comfort zone. Maybe people won’t take you seriously because you are older or inexperienced. But check it out anyway. All they can say is “no” and that won’t kill you. I’m not one for taking giant leaps, but little baby steps may be all you need to get the ball rolling.
  5. Don’t Give Up. Even though the New York Times says, “The long-term jobless, after all, tend to be in poorer health, and to have higher rates of suicide and strained family relations.” But don’t let it get you down for long. Sure, everyone has those days when you just want to throw a giant pity party and stay in bed. But don’t stay there indefinitely. Good things do happen and sometimes they actually happen to good people. People laugh when I tell them that I enter lots of contests. But in the last year, I have won a VIP trip to Los Angeles (which included airline tickets, transit passes, restaurant vouchers, museum and amusement park passes and a $500 gift card), CDs, concert tickets, tee shirts and other stuff. Other than writing contests, I only enter contests that have no fees attached. I read the general rules and make sure that it is legitimate. But be careful who you give your personal information to, though. Entering contests is fun and it gives me something positive to think about for a while. And that never hurt anybody. I have always found that in my life, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” So don’t give up. Be proactive rather than reactive. I can’t say that I believe in a fairy-tale happy ending, but I believe that moments of happiness happen in all of our lives.

There you have it, the lessons I have learned. Take it or leave it. And if you think that all of this is just some happy horseshit, come up with your own list. I wish you luck, strength and wisdom (and a lot of fun, too).

Lowrey, Annie. “Caught in Unemployment’s Revolving Door.” New York Times. N.p., 17 Nov. 2013. Web. 17 Nov. 2013.

SNAP Judgment

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The latest volley has been fired in the war against the long-term unemployed. This week, Congress will be voting on whether to discontinue eligibility for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits (food stamps) for many recipients, including unemployed persons who have been out of work longer than three months and are not enrolled in job training. The Program stands to be cut by $40 million. As usual, the ones who will be most affected by this change would be those of us who are single, long-term unemployed, and over fifty. I read the blog from Jim Weill, the president of the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). He made many fine points about how the cuts would affect children, parents, women, rural Americans, business owners, farmers, educators, health care advocates and veterans, but he made no mention of the millions of single long-term unemployed persons who would be left hungry and even-more-hopeless if these cuts are approved.

This morning, National Public Radio played a clip from an interview with a “surfer dude” who was buying lobster with his SNAP benefits. In the sound byte, he proudly swiped his EBT card and snidely thanked taxpayers for providing him with the culinary good life. Apparently, this interview is being used to illustrate how lazy people who are eating “high on the hog” are abusing the program.

Well, I am one “Hogg” who finds SNAP to be a godsend, not an excuse to gorge myself with steak, filet mignon, and Evian water. (BTW, sparkling water cannot be bought with SNAP.) Unlike “surfer dude,” I do not go into my local grocery store, proudly brandishing my EBT card, heading for the high-priced seafood counter. In fact, I’ve never bought lobster in my life. But last week, I did get shrimp. I used it to make a pot of gumbo, which provided me with dinner for three days I even shared it with a friend, who is also unemployed, over-fifty and receiving SNAP benefits.

I don’t enjoy being unemployed and I definitely don’t enjoy using food stamps. In grocery stores, I try to discretely palm the card in my hand as I swipe it, to avoid the looks of distain from other shoppers. But even that doesn’t always save me from embarrassment. Recently, I tried in vain to use my card at a local specialty food store. After being told to call the number on the back of the card, which I did with no success, I was told to contact my eligibility worker, as if I had done something wrong. I used the card later that day at another grocery with no problem. But the manager never once tested their system to see if the error was theirs, not mine. When I was homeless in Santa Monica for three months last year, I used to visit a similar store to get nutritious food before spending the night in an emergency winter shelter. On more than one occasion, their card reader wasn’t accepting EBT cards, which I didn’t discover until standing in line and attempting to complete my transaction. I still cringe when I remember the glares I got when the clerk announced that I could not use my SNAP benefits due to a malfunction. Every time I use my card, I feel a little less like a real person, a reminder that I’m not a productive and valued member of society.

Since 2009, I have had only two part time jobs, both of which were eliminated. I don’t know what I would do without food stamps. I have been homeless for almost two years now, spending the last eighteen months with friends. I buy, prepare and store my food separately from theirs, while I diligently look for work. I can’t, and don’t expect, them to provide food for me, as well as a place to rest my head. Donations to food banks are dwindling as the need increases. And how are people supposed to get to food banks (and job training for that matter) with no income? I try to use my SNAP benefits wisely, to purchase salad ingredients and items that can provide multiple meals. I only eat two meals a day, as three meals is a luxury that I only indulge in when I am working. For me, “splurge” means buying cookies to sweeten the sourness of life, not binging on lobster. Who will hire an older woman with two degrees? I have had potential employers say that I “wouldn’t be happy here,” with my background and education. My response is, “I would be happy just to be able to afford to buy my own food.”

Sometimes, I wonder if this country just wants to eliminate all of us older, long-term unemployed persons. Our lingering efforts to look for work make the weekly unemployment and job creation stats look bad. We are too young for retirement and too old to be hired. And I have the unlucky luck of being in good physical and mental health, not eligible for any type of disability benefits. I have spent almost thirty years helping others in the areas that are booming right now – public assistance, unemployment insurance, and homeless shelters – but potential employers would rather that I be a consumer of these services instead of a service provider. Millions of older, long-term employed persons continue to apply for jobs and learn new skills to no avail. No matter how much job training we get, we will still be the last hired. What are we supposed to do? According to Congress, the next step for many of us might be to starve to death.

 

Join the SNAP Helps Us All campaign, created by the Sacramento Hunger Coalition and the California Hunger Action Coalition, by going to www.sachousingalliance.org.

Welcome Back…

Today is the birthday of Soleil Esperanza DeSalle, one of the main characters in my novel, Three Chords One Song. If Soleil was a real person, she would be 34 today. When I “interviewed” her at the start of the novel, she “told” me that she was born on November 2, 1978. I had planned to write about her today, but after several false starts and after yesterday’s events, I decided to write about myself instead. What was I doing on November 2, 1978? Fortunately, it was easy to find out, as I have kept a diary since January 1, 1970, three days before my 13th birthday.

It wasn’t a very eventful day. I washed my hair and did laundry. I went to the hospital to visit my Aunt Elizabeth. I went to Hills, a department store similar to the Target of today. And I got a call for a job interview at Miller’s, a high-class ladies’ fashion store at South Hills Village, the local mall. In the fall of 1978, I was 21 and unemployed, having left my very first job, in retail sales, a few months before I graduated from Pitt, so I could devote my time to finishing my final term papers. I had spent the last few months looking for work and contemplating a life-altering decision. Two weeks later, I would get a job at Gimbels, a department store where I would work for the next year and a half, making some lifelong friends. The adventure of my adult life was just beginning, even though I didn’t know it at that time.

On November 1, 2012, my photo appeared in the online version of the New York Times, along with a few sentences from an interview I had with reporter Catherine Rampell on October 11, about issues affecting the long-term unemployed. The interview came about because a year earlier, I had sent one of my essays (a version of “Driven to Tears” is in the July Archive) to the National Employment Law Project and indicated that I would be willing to be interviewed by the media concerning unemployment issues. The interview took about an hour, but the text used in the article was three short paragraphs. The article didn’t mention the problems of finding work when potential employers required credit checks and the possession of “reliable personal transportation.” It indicated that after losing my apartment, I had stayed “occasionally at train stations.” Now, I don’t consider two nights spent sleeping at Union Station in Los Angeles to be “occasionally,” but I guess it sounded more interesting than my real LA experience of staying in emergency shelters for six weeks, staying in transitional housing in South Central for one month, and staying in a Santa Monica hostel for two weeks. But I am grateful for the publicity, even though I would rather my Times debut would have been on the Best Sellers List. I sent out e-mail to my friends and posted the link on my Facebook page. I gritted my teeth and even read some of the comments about the article on the website. (FYI – the article will be in today’s print edition of the paper.)

When I started work on the novel that would become Three Chords One Song, I knew that one of the main characters would be a female musician. After selecting the name from a song on Yes’ Tales from Topographic Oceans, I visualized a tall, beautiful multicultural woman with the voice of an angel and the shredding skills of a demon. Soleil was created as a microcosm of many women I have known over the years, both personally and professionally. She is the descendant of the blues women I have admired, from Bessie Smith to Baby Washington to Romaine, a friend of my parents who used to visit when I was a little girl, who could coax magic from my old upright piano. Soleil’s story of tragedy and triumph is duplicated in the lives of women everywhere. She is all of us, with a bravado forged from fighting to make a name for herself in her world. As I was writing the book, I found Soleil to be the character that I was drawn to. Maybe in some ways she became my alter ego – the woman that I could only imagine becoming. Maybe she was the daughter I might have had if things would have been different 34 years ago.

Maybe years from now, I’ll look back on today’s diary. Maybe I’m embarking on the next adventure of my adult life, embracing my inner Soleil – whose middle name means “hope” – but I don’t know it yet. Today is also the birthday of keyboardist Keith Emerson. As ELP used to say, “Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends.” Maybe the show is just beginning. Only time will tell.

My eBook Three Chords One Song is now available on Amazon.com.

The New York Times article can be found at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/02/business/economy/lingering-unemployment-poses-long-term-risk.html

Driven To Tears

I wrote a longer version of this essay last year, but unfortunately it is still relevant.

 After three years, I was finally going back to work! I felt confident as I entered the building for my second interview on Monday morning. During the call on Friday, the coordinator told me that the competition for the position was down to me and another candidate. The job sounded like a great opportunity.  I would be able to help others improve their lives – that was the reason I had worked in social services for most of my life. I prayed as I sat down in the reception area.

The interview was going well. I felt like I had established a rapport with the three women who were asking the questions. My answers were good ones, establishing my commitment and interest in working with disadvantaged persons and handling stressful situations. In less than thirty minutes, it was almost over. The coordinator told me about the starting date, the pay and the benefits. “You will receive a mileage stipend for your gas expenses. Is that okay?” She smiled as she waited for my answer.

Mileage? I thought back to the job announcement posted on a local job website. Nowhere in the ad was there any mention of car ownership. It had said, “Must possess a valid California Driver’s License” and indicated that a clean DMV record was required. I had both of those. I smiled back and took a deep breath, “I don’t have a car.” Her smile faded. I mentioned that I had done other jobs without having a car, including being a test proctor for the US Census Bureau. She shook her head sadly. Even though it hadn’t been stated in the job announcement, a car was required to visit clients at their job sites.

“Why can’t I use public transportation to get to job sites? I’m sure that many of your clients use public transportation.” She thought about it for a second and said she would ask her director if she could hire me even though I didn’t have a car. I mentioned that due to the local pollution problems, employers should be encouraging their employees to use public transportation as much as possible. She nodded, but looked skeptical. The coordinator said she would check with the director and call me back later in the day after they had interviewed the other candidate. I tried to hold back the tears I felt forming. I knew it was over.

After the tears dried, I started to get mad. I wanted to stay in the social services field, working with the homeless and poor. Each day, I scoured the ads online. Almost all of them required access to reliable private transportation. In the three years since I had last worked, employers had told me that even though my qualifications were excellent, they couldn’t even interview a carless candidate. When I told some of my friends and acquaintances about what happened, some of them suggested that I should have lied and told them that my car was in the shop for repairs. But I couldn’t bring myself to give false information to a potential employer.

Now, instead of working with the poor and homeless, I am one of them. Instead of helping others overcome their barriers to employment, I am being bludgeoned by my own. But I refuse to go down without a fight. I am a victim of discrimination. How am I, a single woman with no family, supposed to maintain upkeep, insurance and fuel for a car while being unemployed for three years? And why should I, a single woman with few transportation needs, be forced to have a car? It is widely known the most of the pollution in the Sacramento area comes from automobiles, so why am I forced to become part of that problem? Sacramento has always been against affordable, reliable and practical public transportation. Sacramento non-profit agencies are echoing that resistance, eliminating agency cars that can be shared by employees and refusing to consider alternate transportation methods.

I don’t want a car! I would not mind sharing one on an as-needed basis, but I have no desire to have a car payment and insurance premium and spend each day checking the fluctuating gas prices like other people check the California Lottery. I have no desire to contribute to the dingy cloud that hangs over the Sacramento valley like the one that follows Pigpen in the cartoons. I can’t believe that in 2012, ownership of a car is a life-or-death requirement. I ponder my demise and attempt to restrain my rage as I check the RT schedule for the train that will take me to the Department of Human Assistance to apply for benefits.

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